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Court Commissioner Shama Mesiwala sees her new job as a way to represent her Muslim faith

Shama H. Mesiwala, is sworn in as a Sacramento Superior Court Commissioner by Judge Steven Gevercer.
Shama H. Mesiwala, is sworn in as a Sacramento Superior Court Commissioner by Judge Steven Gevercer. Courtesy of Sacramento Superior Court

She says almost immediately that she’s overwhelmed – by the honor, by the trust placed in her by the county’s judges, by the opportunity to represent her faith and live out the hopes and dreams her parents carried from India to America a generation ago.

When Shama H. Mesiwala, 42, raised her right hand Monday to be sworn in as the newest Sacramento Superior Court commissioner, she also marked another distinction as one of the state’s few Muslim judicial officials.

“I’m really proud I can represent my faith in this way. … I didn’t expect to be appointed to this position,” Mesiwala said in an interview days before her swearing-in ceremony in the chambers of Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Culhane. “I think it’s a testament to the Sacramento Superior Court and its judges that they put that trust and confidence in me, to see my integrity and temperament. It’s overwhelming and an overwhelming honor to my family.”

Commissioners exercise the same powers and duties as trial court judges on matters such as small-claims actions and infractions and can serve as temporary judges in court cases. They are appointed by the Superior Court judges.

Mesiwala, a senior judicial attorney for California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, law professor and co-founder of the South Asian Bar Association of Sacramento, will handle juvenile dependency cases, a passion of Mesiwala’s since her earliest days in law.

These are tense times in the Muslim community, given a rising Islamophobic sentiment, President Donald Trump’s recent order to ban travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and vandalism and violence at mosques in Davis, Roseville, Texas and Quebec. But Mesiwala holds steadfast to the hopes her parents had for her – and their new country – when they immigrated more than 40 years ago.

“My parents came to this country for a better life for their children. This appointment is a culmination of that,” Mesiwala said.

She points to her uncle, a patriarchal figure and the first of the family to come to America in the 1950s, on an academic scholarship to Harvard. In 1969, her father followed to study electrical engineering at Stanford. Her mother joined him in the Bay Area a year later. They stayed and started a family.

Her parents steeped her and her brother in the country they now called home through public schools and athletic fields and summer trips to national and state parks in their Chevrolet station wagon. Their strong work ethic with its dictum to plan, practice and prepare is in evidence throughout her résumé.

She graduated magna cum laude in three years from UC San Diego where an English professor encouraged her to pursue a legal career. She began law school at 20 at UC Davis’ King Hall, attracted by its mission of equal justice and law in the public interest. She passed the State Bar exam three years later and was arguing cases before appellate courts and the state Supreme Court before she turned 30, representing indigent clients in criminal and juvenile dependency appeals.

The experience merged her interests in criminal law and public service. “My whole career has that thread running through it,” Mesiwala said.

A 13-year stint as a judicial attorney in the 3rd District Court of Appeal followed, which Mesiwala called “a tremendously rewarding experience,” but she had her eyes on a career on the bench.

“People’s legal issues – no matter how big or small – are of tremendous significance to them,” she said, “and you have to maintain a courtroom with that in mind.”

Mesiwala received high marks from the legal and judicial community, Culhane, the presiding judge, said Monday. He called her a special talent.

“You find folks who are highly accomplished because of the cases they litigated, others for their stellar academics or community involvement. Less frequently, you find someone who combines all of these things,” Culhane said of Mesiwala.

“Shama … is brilliant, highly qualified and has an exceptional work ethic,” said Madhavi Sunder, an associate dean and law professor at UC Davis School of Law, in a statement. “The citizens of our state are lucky to have a person of such integrity appointed to the bench.”

UC Davis law professor and friend Karima Bennoune called Mesiwala’s appointment “an important sign of hope and a reminder of the importance of cultural diversity” on the bench, saying she sees Mesiwala as a role model for other South Asian women.

“I was delighted when I heard the news,” Bennoune said. “She’s been concerned with social justice for everyone. One of the big commitments of our school is equal justice for everyone, and it’ll be great to see her carry those values forward. It’s especially terrific right now. It’s a reminder of the very positive things we need right now.”

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith